In the desert Southwest of America
during the waning days of the Old West, three gunmen wearing
long duster overcoats (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, Al Mulock)
take over an isolated train depot and settle in to wait for
the train. When the train finally comes, a nameless harmonica-playing
stranger (Charles Bronson) gets off and asks for someone named
Frank. They tell him Frank sent them in his place. In the
ensuing showdown, all four men go down. Only the man with
the harmonica gets up again.
remote farm called Sweetwater, Brett McBain (Frank Wolff)
and his family are preparing an outdoor wedding feast. McBain
tells his son Patrick to drive into town to meet his new
mother, who will be arriving by train from New Orleans.
Suddenly shots ring out from the surrounding desert, and
daughter Maureen, son Patrick, and McBain himself are slain.
The youngest McBain, Timmy, runs out of the house to find
that his entire family has been destroyed. He watches in
terrified silence as a group of five gunmen in duster overcoats
emerge from the scrub brush. When one of the men calls their
leader Frank by name, asking what to do with the child,
Frank (Henry Fonda) draws his pistol and slowly takes aim
at the last remaining witness. With a self-satisfied grin,
he pulls the trigger.
town of Flagstone, McBain's bride Jill (Claudia Cardinale)
steps down from the train to find that no one is there to
meet her. Giving up hope, she steps through the train station
into the bustling new town still being built. She hires
a carriage to drive her to Sweetwater. The farm's name draws
laughter from the driver, Sam (Paolo Stoppa), who informs
her that "Sweetwater" is a worthless piece of
ground, and McBain is crazy for trying to farm it.
the way, Sam speeds through a group of railroad workers
busily laying their "damn rails." Then he stops
at a wayside inn/tavern/trading post, and Jill follows him
inside. Her beauty draws the unwelcome attentions of the
barman (Lionel Stander). After a noisy off-screen gun battle,
the outlaw Cheyenne (Jason Robards) enters wearing shackles
on his wrists. The sounds of a harmonica again reveal the
presence of the nameless stranger, who has been watching
from a dark corner of the tavern. Cheyenne dubs him "Harmonica,"
and he uses Harmonica's gun to force another patron to shoot
apart the chain between his wrists. Cheyenne's men soon
arrive, too late to help him escape the prison guards who
now lie dead outside. Harmonica notes that the three men
he killed earlier were wearing the same duster overcoats
as Cheyenne's men, and Cheyenne is annoyed that rivals may
be copying his trademark dusters.
and Sam arrive at Sweetwater to find a crowd of somber wedding
guests standing around the outdoor tables, now put to use
as funeral biers. Jill is horrified at the carnage. When
one of the women bemoans that this should happen to the
"poor little miss" on her wedding day, Jill informs
the guests that she and Brett McBain were already married
a month earlier in New Orleans. As the burial comes to an
end, the crowd discovers that the torn-off collar of a duster
overcoat was found on a nail by the door. This marks the
massacre as Cheyenne's work. The men form a posse and ride
off to track down the outlaw and hang him. Sam offers to
drive Jill back to Flagstone, but she says she will stay
at Sweetwater. That evening, she ransacks the McBain household,
looking for anything of value that might have been hidden
town laundry in Flagstone that night, Harmonica puts the
laundry man Wobbles through a violent interrogation, wanting
to know why Frank didn't show up at the train. Wobbles doesn't
know; he only arranged the meeting. Harmonica suspects Frank
was occupied at McBain's farm just then, but Wobbles insists
otherwise: "Cheyenne did that job--everyone knows that.
We got proof." Harmonica doesn't believe it: "That
was always one of Frank's tricks--fakin' evidence."
finds a group of miniature buildings stored away in a trunk,
including a model train station with a fancy swinging sign
that says "STATION." She hears the sound of a
harmonica outside and fires a shotgun into the darkness.
The sound of the harmonica moves farther away. In the morning
as she is about to leave for good, she finds Cheyenne on
her doorstep. While his men wait outside, he barges in and
asks for coffee. He tells of being chased by the posse all
night and helps make the fire for the coffee. He says he
would never kill a kid: "I ain't the mean bastard people
make out." He decided to come take a look at the scene
of his supposed crime. Not only is he annoyed that someone
is trying to blame him, but neither he nor Jill can understand
why the killings happened at all. The place looks so worthless,
he imagines that McBain must have hidden a treasure away
somewhere. Jill tells him that if so, she couldn't find
it. Aware that she is vulnerable to any sort of mistreatment
Cheyenne and his men might deal out, she serves the coffee.
private railroad car, Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), a crippled
and dying railroad tycoon, berates Frank for killing the
McBains. He only wanted Frank to scare McBain, not kill
him. And now a Mrs. McBain has shown up, making the killings
pointless. Morton began building his railroad in sight of
the Atlantic Ocean, and he means to build his way to the
Pacific before he dies. He hired Frank to "remove small
obstacles from the tracks," but Frank intends to become
a wealthy businessman himself. Morton tells Frank he will
never be like Morton, because Frank doesn't understand that
money is more powerful than guns.
sharing a congenial interlude with Jill, Cheyenne finishes
up his coffee and rides away with his men. Now Jill once
again takes up her traveling bags and goes out to the wagon.
But Harmonica is there and demands that she stay. As he
throws her down roughly and begins ripping at her clothes,
Jill becomes alarmed. Instead of harming her, he simply
removes the white trimmings from her black dress, leaving
her in full mourning. They go to the well for a drink of
water, only to be attacked by yet two more of Frank's men.
Harmonica kills them, and from a nearby vantage point Cheyenne
sees how handy Harmonica is with a gun.
goes to the laundry and asks Wobbles to tell Frank she knows
everything and wants to negotiate with Frank personally.
Wobbles denies knowing anyone named Frank, but Jill repeats
her demand and leaves. Wobbles heads out to Morton's private
train, unaware that Harmonica is following him. Morton scolds
him for coming there, but Wobbles says he wasn't followed,
and he thought Morton and Frank would want to know about
Mrs. McBain. When Frank sees Harmonica's shadow on the ground,
he knows someone is on the roof, and he signals the train
to start moving.
in open country, Frank captures Harmonica (at which time
a blurry flashback appears of an indistinct man walking
through a desert landscape, but no explanation is given
just yet). Frank has Harmonica brought on board and bound.
He kicks Wobbles off the train (literally) and shoots him
down just as Wobbles is about to reveal the presence of
Cheyenne hiding in the train's undercarriage. Harmonica
lets Frank know that the two men he sent to kill Jill are
themselves dead. Realizing this is the man who wanted to
meet with him, Frank asks Harmonica who he is. Harmonica
answers with the names of two men Frank has killed. Morton
interrupts the interrogation to remind Frank he has more
urgent business: the woman. Taking to horseback, Frank rides
away with three of his men to do away with Mrs. McBain himself.
He leaves three men behind on the train to guard Harmonica
and keep an eye on Morton, whom he doesn't trust. Frank
tells the men to meet him at the Navajo cliff, and the train
gets under way again. Over the next few minutes, Cheyenne
craftily disposes of the three gunmen one by one and sets
Harmonica free. They now have Morton in their power, but
they will deal with him later, choosing to stop the train
and ride to Jill's aid.
Jill is puzzled by the arrival of a large amount of lumber
and building supplies that McBain ordered. Since he paid
cash, it all belongs to her. Neither the lumberman nor Sam
can say what it's for, but there are enough materials to
build at least eight buildings. When the lumberman shows
her a blank sign and asks if she knows what should go on
it, she recognizes its outline from the miniature train
station and tells him it should say "STATION."
Inside the house, she looks through the trunk again for
the model train station. Just then, Frank captures her.
Navajo cliff, Morton offers to buy Sweetwater to avoid more
killing--he's had enough of Frank's butcher tactics. He
doesn't have time to compete with Frank. But away from his
train, Morton looks weak and pathetic, no competition at
all as far as Frank is concerned. Frank kicks one of his
crutches out from under him, sending Morton sprawling face
first: "I could squash you like a wormy apple."
Frank tells some of his men to take Morton back to his train
and watch him.
Cheyenne and his men are just as puzzled by the building
supplies as Jill was. Harmonica begins pacing off the dimensions
of a train station, all the while explaining to Cheyenne
what he has seen in a document. McBain was planning to build
a town at Sweetwater. He had learned that it has the only
water supply for fifty miles west of Flagstone. Since trains
need lots of water to make steam, the railroad must inevitably
come through Sweetwater. McBain contracted for the rights
to operate the depot himself, provided it was built by the
time the tracks reached it. Knowing that the rail gangs
are just over the hill, Cheyenne puts his men to work building
a ruin at the Navajo cliff, Frank enjoys an intimate interlude
with his captive Jill. He remarks that she will do anything
to stay alive and that it seems she can't resist a man's
touch, even the touch of the man who killed her husband.
Frank knows from inquiries sent over the telegraph that
Jill was one of the most popular prostitutes in New Orleans
until she married McBain. As he undresses her, he thinks
of marrying her himself to take over the land. Realizing
he would make a bad husband, he comes up with a quicker,
sits in quiet resignation in the saloon at Flagstone, where
people have gathered for a land auction. One of Frank's
men hovers over her, and several more are scattered through
the crowd, ready to intimidate anyone who even starts to
make a bid. It's Frank's way of getting the property for
himself cheaply. The sheriff (Keenan Wynn) reluctantly gets
the auction under way.
on Morton's train, Morton can sense that his dream of seeing
the Pacific is growing more and more remote. He joins a
game of poker with four of Frank's men who are now his captors.
Instead of dealing out cards, he deals out five hundred
dollars to each of the men to buy their allegiance to him.
at the land auction, one of Frank's still-loyal men bids
five hundred dollars for the farm. Just as the sheriff is
about to close the sale, Harmonica calls out a bid of five
thousand dollars. In what is most likely a scheme devised
by both men, Harmonica brings in an indignant Cheyenne at
gunpoint and turns him in for the reward money to cover
his bid. The sheriff puts Cheyenne under guard on the train
bound to Yuma, where there is a new, strong, modern prison
that is much more secure than the local jail. But two of
Cheyenne's men follow him onto the train after buying one-way
tickets to the next station. Meanwhile, one of the men on
Morton's train rides into town to tell the others what transpired
in the poker game.
is grateful that Harmonica has saved the farm for her, and
she begins to look at him more warmly. Frank enters the
saloon and offers Harmonica five thousand dollars for the
farm, plus one silver dollar profit. Again he asks Harmonica's
name, and Harmonica answers with the names of two more dead
men: "They were all alive until they met you, Frank."
(Again, the blurred flashback appears, but the image of
Frank walking through the desert becomes clearer than before.)
Harmonica rejects the offer but uses Frank's silver dollar
to pay for his drink. Having noticed suspicious activity
outside, Harmonica goes to watch from the upstairs windows
and balcony, breaking into the room where Jill is taking
a steamy bath. Frank steps out of the saloon onto the street--and
into a deadly cat-and-mouse game. His former men, now Morton's
men, try to gun him down. But with some "timely"
assistance from Harmonica, Frank manages to kill them instead
and rides out. Jill is furious at Harmonica for saving Frank's
life. He tells her, "I didn't let them kill him and
that's not the same thing."
discovers the aftermath of a gun battle at Morton's train.
Bodies of Frank's men and Cheyenne's men lie strewn alongside
the tracks and in Morton's private car. He finds Morton
crawling desperately to a nearby mud puddle. Frank draws
and cocks his gun to finish him off but then decides to
let him suffer. With the sound of ocean waves crashing in
his mind, Morton dies.
tracks are reaching Sweetwater at last, and builders are
busily turning the farmyard into the beginnings of a town.
Harmonica sits at the farmyard gate as Cheyenne comes riding
awkwardly in and goes inside. Not quite his usual self,
he again asks for coffee, which Jill has ready this time.
They both sense that outside something important is about
to happen with Harmonica, but they're not sure just what.
Cheyenne: "He's whittlin' on a piece of wood. I got
a feelin' when he stops whittlin', somethin's gonna happen."
rides up to the gate, and Harmonica stops whittling. They
have a verbal exchange that serves as a prelude to their
coming duel. Frank admits he'll never be a businessman:
"Just a man." They acknowledge they're of an ancient
race being killed off by the coming of the modern age--arriving
right next to them as they speak. Then Frank gets to the
business between them: "The future don't matter to
us. Nothin' matters now--not the land, not the money, not
the woman. I came here to see you. 'Cause I know that now
you'll tell me what you're after." "Only at the
point of dyin'," Harmonica tells him. Frank says, "I
know," and they stride out into the farmyard to face
off for the final showdown.
Cheyenne begins to clean up and shave while he watches the
railroad move up. He tells Jill she should take water out
to the workers at the tracks, letting them enjoy the sight
of a beautiful woman. And if one of them should pat her
behind, she should just make believe it's nothing. They
and Harmonica square up to draw, Harmonica ponders his history
with Frank, and the full flashback is revealed.
Frank strides out of the desert to the isolated ruin of
a Spanish mission--a lone arch with a bell hanging at the
top. He places a brand new harmonica into a young man's
mouth, telling him to keep his lovin' brother happy. The
youth's hands are bound behind him, and his older brother,
also bound, is standing on his shoulders with a noose around
his neck. Frank and his men wait for the inevitable moment
when the boy's legs will give way and complete the hanging.
The doomed man curses Frank and kicks his younger brother
away. The harmonica drops out of the young man's mouth as
he falls into the dust.
and Harmonica draw and fire. Frank staggers away a few steps
and falls to the ground, again asking Harmonica, "Who
... who are you?" In answer, Harmonica places the old,
beaten-up harmonica into Frank's mouth. It jogs Frank's
memory--he sees the end of the flashback for himself, the
image of the youth falling into the dust and the harmonica
dropping out of his mouth. With a few wheezed chords, Frank
falls lifelessly into the dust, and the harmonica drops
out of his mouth.
tells Jill he's not the right man for her, but neither is
Harmonica. There's something inside a man like that, he
tells her, something to do with death. Once Harmonica has
dealt with Frank, he will come inside, pick up his things
and move on.
comes in and, true to Cheyenne's prediction, picks up his
belongings and tells Jill he has to go. They share a lingering
look, and then he opens the front door and surveys the developing
street scene outside. "It's going to be a beautiful
town, Sweetwater," he says. Jill hopes he will come
back someday. With a doubtful "Someday," Harmonica
takes his leave. Cheyenne too says goodbye and pats Jill
on the behind, telling her to make believe it's nothing.
two men begin to ride away, Cheyenne gets off his horse
and plops to the ground. Harmonica discovers that Cheyenne
has been gut-shot, the work of Morton himself during the
gun battle at the train. Cheyenne asks Harmonica to go away--he
doesn't want Harmonica to see him die. Harmonica turns away
and soon hears Cheyenne fall over dead. Just then, the work
train rolls into Sweetwater and stops at the station, which
has its "STATION" sign in place. Harmonica takes
away Cheyenne's body as Jill carries water out to the newly
arrived railroad workers.
OF FILM (See